Chinese New Year, or Lunar New Year, is a time of reunion for many families celebrating the festival, but it is also a time for enjoying many delicacies, each usually carrying a symbolic meaning in their names. While Chinese New Year customs may differ in various parts of China and worldwide, one thing that is significant across Chinese culture is the traditional dinner full of food and snacks. From long, uncut rice noodles to sticky rice cakes, below are some of the commonly-enjoyed traditional food items consumed during the New Year, along with facts about the meaning behind the dishes and some easy recipes so you can host your own feast at home.
Yusheng, or Lo Hei
If there's one dish that is enjoyed only during this festive period and no other time else, it's yusheng (鱼生), sometimes known as lo hei (撈起) in Cantonese. Yusheng is a Teochew-style cold salad popular in Malaysia and Singapore. The dish literally means "raw fish" in Mandarin Chinese, but is homophonous with the phrase "increased abundance," also pronounced yusheng (余升). The dish is prepared by introducing the ingredients one by one to a giant serving plate, reciting statements that play on the ingredients's names, such as saying "may your life be sweet" when adding plum sauce or "gold is scattered all over the floor" when adding fried crackers onto a bed of shredded radish and carrots, pomelo, sliced raw fish and more. People then gather round the dish and toss the ingredients high into the air to mix it thoroughly, while exclaiming "prosper" loudly. Here's one easy recipe for yusheng to celebrate the Chinese New Year.
These sticky cakes made from glutinous rice are eaten during the Chinese New Year because its name nian gao (年糕), which translates literally from Mandarin to English as "year cake," sounds like the phrase "higher each year," pronounced nian gao (年高). The idea is that eating the confection symbolizes raising oneself higher each year. The dish can be savory or sweet, with Northern Chinese variants prefering the former and Southern Chinese prefering the latter. The savory versions are usually stir-fried and served as a dish, while the sweet ones are often eaten as a snack. This recipe for nian gao promises to bring good luck.
Jau Gok, or Gok Zai
These may look like regular fried dumplings, but their difference lies in the shape. Jau gok (油角) or gok zai (角仔), Cantonese for "oil (fried) dumplings)" or "little dumplings," is popular in the Guangdong province of China and Hong Kong. Unlike regular dumplings or potstickers, these meat-stuffed or coconut-stuffed fritters have a braid pattern along the edge, and its shape resembles an ingot, a form of currency in ancient China. Jau gok are commonly eaten during Chinese New Year among Cantonese communities. Dozens and dozens of these dumplings are made for the holiday -- a time-consuming process -- and some families find making these together a bonding process. In Northern China, a different kind of steamed dumpling, called yuanbao (元宝) is eaten. Here is a recipe for pork dumplings.
Long egg noodles made with wheat, known as longevity noodles (长寿面), are prepared and served uncut, to symbolize a wish for a long life. These longer-than-usual noodles are also usually eaten during birthdays. They can be stir-fried or served in a broth. These noodles are of Cantonese origin, and when eaten outside of festive seasons are simply known as yi mein, or e-fu noodles. Home cooks can try this traditional recipe.
A vegetarian dish containing many ingredients, Buddha's Delight or Luohan Zhai (罗汉斋) in Mandarin, was traditionally enjoyed by Buddhist monks, but is now a popular dish available at many Chinese restaurants. The dish, which literal meaning is "Arhat's Vegetarian Food," is served during the first day of the Chinese New Year for the belief that one should maintain a vegetarian diet during the first five days of the new year. The ingredients are also seen as symbols of good luck, such as "fat choy," a black, vermicelli-like vegetable that is actually a bacteria, which sounds like the word for prosper in Cantonese, also "fat choy." Pay attention to texture when making this recipe.
Various fishes are eaten during the Chinese New Year, as the word for fish (鱼) sounds like the word for abundance (余), both pronounced "yu." Two kinds of carp, "jiyu" and "liyu," in particular have components in their names that in Mandarin sound like "good luck," pronounced "ji" (吉), and "gifts," pronounced "li" (礼). Eating these fishes is thought to user in luck and wealth. Any other fish can also be eaten during this season.
Chinese Candy Box
During the Chinese New Year, it is customary for families to visit relatives at their homes. Candy boxes, often called a Tray of Togetherness or quanhe (全盒) in Mandarin containing several sweet treats will also be set out to entertain the guests. Common components of the box included candied dried lotus root and seeds, candied dried winter melon, roasted watermelon seeds, and dried coconut, each with a symbolic meaning from wishing for increased fertility to stronger family ties. The goodies are traditionally served in an ornate lacquer box with multiple compartments for each treat, but these days the candy boxes come pre-packed in disposable containers. Other forms of candy can be put in these boxes too.
Bakkwa, or Rougan
A delicacy similar to jerky, but sweeter and more tender. Originating from Fujian, China, bakkwa, as it is known in the local dialect, or rougan (肉干) in Mandarin, is a staple in many Southern Chinese cultures, including Hong Kong and Taiwan. Often made with pork, and less commonly beef or mutton, it is made with a centuries-old preservation technique that has virtually remained unchanged throughout, where the meat slices are seasoned and hung on a rack to dry. The Singapore and Malaysian variants, where bakkwa is immensely popular during Chinese New Year and prices can go up to $48 per kilogram, are grilled over charcoal instead, giving it a smokier flavor.
Mandarin oranges and tangerines are considered symbols of good fortunes because of their names, which sound like gold and luck in Mandarin. These fruits are usually displayed prominently in baskets in homes during Chinese New Year because their bright orange resembles mounds of gold, ushering in good fortune. Families visiting relatives bring these citrus fruits along with them when visiting friends and family, and it is customary to present a pair while wishing them good fortune, and receive a pair in return. If the fruits have their stems and leaves on, even better, because leaves represent longevity.
Tangyuan, or yuanxiao
Made from glutinous rice, tangyuan is typically eaten during the Lantern Festival, but it is also served during an festive occasion that emphasizes on reunion, such as Chinese New Year. Its name tangyuan (汤圆) sounds like the Mandarin word for reunion "tuanyuan" (团圆). It is also known as yuanxiao, after the Lantern Festival's name in Mandarin, where flying lanterns are lit. Northern Chinese varieties can be savory, containing minced meat and vegetables, while Southern Chinese varieties tend to be sweet, containing sesame, peanuts, or red bean paste, to name a few. They can be served either in plain hot water, a spicy-sweet ginger broth, or a savory clear stew, depending on the kind of dumpling.